Chinese democracy: is it an oxymoron?

More than a year after the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, its reverberations can still be felt around the world.  Civil war rages in Syria, Libya is attempting to rebuild itself, and Egypt is trying to shake off the shackles of a military dictatorship. However, one big question that remains unanswered is – will the Arab Spring turn into a Chinese summer?

The Chinese Communist regime is among the most unusual and interesting in the world. It maintains an ideological connection to Marxism and Maoism, but also presides over a labour market more deregulated than in most western countries, as well as owning some of the world’s largest private firms. It is somewhere between a socialist’s and objectivist’s dreams or their worst nightmares. Despite the government’s at times overbearing nature, it remains consistently popular with the one point three billion people it rules over, mainly due to the government’s ability to lift people out of poverty.

Chinese industrialization has been swift and effective, building high-tech industries where once there was subsistence farming. A country which once closed its doors to western technologies and goods now has a maglev network and is building 26 new airports. There are people in China today who run software firms whose parents farmed rice fields; one generation has gone from Milton’s green and pleasant fields to Silicon Valley. Many Chinese people do not want to change their government, because in their opinion they have the best government in the world: no other government has ever done so much to so drastically improve the wealth and living conditions of so many people. Poverty still remains a problem in China, especially for the millions of migrant labourers with no legal status or protection, but the wealth of the world is flowing into a country which throughout history has thought of itself as purely self-sufficient. Imagine if our parents and grandparents had been serfs on lands owned by feudal Barons, how much would we look up to the political party that brought us consumer goods.

The Chinese government has also recently relaxed its laws against political dissidence, and it is now acceptable to criticise openly state bureaucrats and regional officials if it is felt they are corrupt or ineffectual. What is firmly off the agenda is any suggestion that Communism should end or that the Chinese government should be elected democratically. For now this delicate balance works well, the government provides vast (but unevenly distributed) wealth for its people and they enjoy more social freedoms than their parents; in turn the party, politbureau and old guard remain firmly in charge and enjoy the universal support of their subjects.

Much like Enron, the entire system is kept afloat by rising stock prices and a healthy dose of aspiration, or the case of China rising absolute living standards and the slim chance of becoming a Communist billionaire. Should a recession strike China and living standards fall, then questions will be asked. The overbearing Communist regime will not be so popular when the trickle of wealth seeping down from the top dries up and suddenly over a billion people will want a say in their government. This will be especially true of the above-mentioned migrant works who currently have the least to gain under Communism.

No regime that has been in power as long as the Chinese Communist Party will quietly step aside, and it will be difficult for western powers to criticise any Chinese crack-down on pro-democracy movements whilst our business interests are so closely linked to the Communist Party. Pro-democracy rumblings in China, such as we have seen in the Middle East, will have disastrous effects on the global community. China owns most of the west’s sovereign debt (especially America’s) and a civil war in China (like the one we see in Syria) could involve more people than World War II. With what will soon be the world’s largest economy up for grabs, the stakes would be very high in a free and open Chinese election.  Multiply this by the problems Russia has had in transferring from Communism to democracy, and you have the potential for a very unstable situation with the very real possibility of grave consequences.

China is opposed to intervention in Syria, as they can hardly call for change in non-democratic regimes, especially as eventually the pro-democracy uprising will find its way to China. When living standards fall, when the impoverished people industrialization is built on the back of organise, when the distribution of colossal amounts of wealth becomes too uneven, calls for regime change will be inescapable.

Democracy will inevitably come to China, but just like the tide of pro-democratic uprisings across the Middle East, this will not necessarily result in the best outcome for the west. Democracy and the Chinese government might seem like strange bed fellows, much like the free market capitalism and state socialism of the current government’s economic policy. The Arab Spring is sill changing the political landscape of the Middle East, but it will be a mixed blessing if becomes a Chinese summer.